The Shadow of Shays’ Rebellion

Following a brief period of prosperity after the War for Independence a severe economic depression occurred aggravated by a shortage of circulating currency that made it difficult for Americans to pay their taxes and debts. Since colonial times the common means of providing relief in depressions included issuing paper money to be loaned to farmers, making property and agricultural produce legal tender, offering installment payments for taxes, and delaying tax collections. When state legislatures failed to provide such relief in postwar America, sporadic and isolated acts of violence erupted in Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, and South Carolina.

The most prominent unrest occurred in the western counties of Massachusetts where debtors led by Daniel Shays (among others) shut down the civil courts to stop foreclosures on delinquent properties after the state legislature refused to enact debtor relief. News of the rebellion spread throughout the nation. Henry Lee of Virginia, a member of Congress, expressed alarm: “We are all in dire apprehension that a beginning of anarchy with all its calamitys has approached, and have no means to stop the dreadful work.” Confederation Secretary of War Henry Knox suggested that the rebellion showed the government needed to be “braced, changed, or altered to secure our lives and property.”

Massachusetts quickly suppressed the unrest with a privately-financed army commanded by former Continental Army General Benjamin Lincoln. Shays’s Rebellion and other acts of violence deeply shocked Americans and spread fear the United States was on the verge of anarchy. Motivated by this fear more and more Americans turned to the idea of a stronger central government.

For an extended discussion of this topic, see Agrarian Unrest and the Constitution  in Volume XIII of The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution.

Correspondence with George Washington About the Rebellion

Correspondence During the Rebellion

Public Commentary After the Rebellion